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January 9, 2004
Dear Subscribers:Happy New Year to all of you! Here's our lineup for this first full week of 2004.
- Family Tech: IM risks & tips
- Web News Briefs: Instant parent-child messages; One family's no-pirated music rule; File-sharing's down; Teaching kids media literacy; Move over, browser; Spam still flows; More trouble for Grand Theft Auto; VoIP's hot for '04....
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Family Tech: Instant-messaging risks and tips
A p.r. agency recently sent us some family PC security tips from CorePROTECT, offering an interview with Tim La Fazia, president of the San Diego-based data security company. We get a lot of these, but we agreed to do an interview because the tips touched on instant-messaging and file-sharing risks, technologies so important to kids. As we got to talking, we were delighted to find out that Tim is also a father of six - one 10, one 16, and the rest in college - tech advice from someone who speaks Parent!
This week the focus is on instant-messaging - risks and what to do about them - next week: file-sharing. And, of course, this two-part series is as much about children's security and privacy as it is about the family computer's.
The CorePROTECT tips said "IM presents as many potential security risks as email and must be properly managed." We asked Tim first to explain the risks. Referring to the way kids like to share files, photos, videos, and tunes via IM, he said the difference between attaching files to IMs versus emails is like "placing a letter in your mailbox for the postman to retrieve and deliver" (email) versus "leaving the doors and windows to your home wide open while you wait for the intended recipient (and anyone else) to come in and pick up the letter you've left for them on your desk (and browse around your home)" with IM.
When you allow file-sharing in an IM program (such as AOL's AIM or Yahoo or MSN Instant Messenger), you're not only opening "a wide door on your machine," you're also "broadcasting your presence" on the Internet, Tim said. Even when you close the IM window without quitting the program, "the application [at its default setting] is running in the background, broadcasting your presence" for personal info collectors, malicious hackers, etc. (stay tuned - more on the default-setting issue below). Your PC is just as vulnerable to viruses and spam with IM as with email, if not more. "The [IM] conversation is traveling across the Net in clear open text," Tim said. "People can use a variety of methods to just pull the text down, hijack personal information."
Does a firewall fix that? we asked. No, he said, because if you want to use IM, you have to tell the firewall to allow it to send and receive messages. When you open the PC for IM, you open it for everything that the IM software does. "IM opens so many ports," Tim said, one each for image transfer, verbal chat, text, etc. "Each requires its own port."
So what's a parent to do? First, back to the default-settings question. Most IM software, Tim said, comes set to a "weak security setting" - for example, allowing anyone who knows your child's email address to find his screenname and IM him, or allowing anyone to send her entire buddy list (which would include a lot of strangers).
Step 1 is to go through the software's preferences with your child and make the appropriate decisions on what to allow (they're easy to understand, written quite well for non-techies). Remember, she is undoubtedly fully capable of changing them at any time (unless you have to log her in with a password she doesn't know), so you'll need to have rules or an understanding about what may not be changed.
"If all you're using IM for is chat, then, when you install IM," Tim suggested, "close down all the other services [in Preferences] and ensure that when you close the chat window, you're actually closing the application. IM's a great tool, but make sure it's locked down only for chat. If you really want to exchange a file [like a photo], email's fine for that," he said, adding that not even email is good for sharing personal information like a child's phone number or address.
We asked him what IM rules he has at his house, and they're sensibly tied to the kids' ever-changing maturity levels. The rule for his 10-year-old is "only the screennames of people you know." There are two ways to do that: 1) only known people on the buddy list ("I check his buddy list pretty often," Tim said) and blocking anyone not on the list, or 2) the more strict version: Type the screennames of people you and the child know into the "Allow List" window and check "Allow only the users below" above the window. In AOL's service, that's under "Privacy," under "Edit Preferences," under "Edit Options," under "My AIM" above the main window. There are lots of other preferences to consider, so just go through them one by one. A couple of other key ones are, under "Send Buddy List," whether to allow others to send their buddy lists (which can include a lot of strangers) and whether to allow anyone who knows your child's email address to find his or her screenname (under "Privacy").
Beyond preferences: When someone goes to "Edit Profile" in the basic configuration menu, a helpful warning might pop up that deserves attention - something like, "Member profiles in our directory can be seen by all members. Don't post any info you want to keep private." Kids often put information in their profiles - not just contact info - that their parents wouldn't want strangers to know, so families need to discuss profiles, whether associated with IM, chat, gaming, or any other online activity. With young kids, ideally, parents simply know what's in those profiles if they're allowed to be used at all (kids find them very cool, so be prepared for some resistance).
There's nothing better than a good family IM policy, revisited often in a very communal sort of way. Tim feels strongly about that and, as a good executive, naturally he recommended installing a system-restore product like his company's for a quick fix if kids do download IM-carried viruses.
For further info
- New IM-carried virus. As if on cue this week, CNET ran a story about a virus that spreads via MSN Messenger. "When executed, the file becomes resident in memory and sends messages to other MSN Messenger users every five minutes, prompting them to download the virus's code, contained in a file called jituxramon.exe."
- Spam, IM-style. It's called "spim," it's becoming more ubiquitous, and it's worse than spam, if that's possible. "Instant-messenger spam announces itself immediately, making it more jarring than email spam, which accumulates quietly," the Wall Street Journal reports. Parents, take note: "Users can accept or decline the messages - when accepted they often include a link to Web pornography."
- Bullying via IM. Adolescent rumors, threats, and humiliation aren't particularly new, but "cyberbullying has a few idiosyncrasies," the Christian Science Monitor reports: 1) the Web gives bullies "a mask of anonymity ... making them difficult to trace"; 2) "the pressure for kids to be always online means bullies can extend their harassment into their victims' homes"; and 3) convenience - "the miracle of the Web means that sharing an embarrassing photo or private note (with thousands of people) requires little more than the click of a key."
- IM providers on security. Here are AIM's "Security Central" and some security info from MSN Messenger, and ICQ's "Security & Privacy Center".
Readers, we'd certainly welcome any tips and comments you have about instant- messaging kids. Have you configured preferences with them, or set any rules that really work for your family? Your experiences can be very helpful to fellow parents! Email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Web News Briefs
- Instant parent-child conversations
While we're on the subject... This is another one of those "how the Internet's changing family life" stories. Mom "types out an instant message and sends it. The data travels some 500 miles, from the computer in her living room in Queens to America Online's servers in Northern Virginia, and then to her son Schuyler's computer, which just happens to be in the next room - about 20 feet away from where she is sitting." Mom's message: "you hungry for dinner?" the New York Times reports. It cites surveys showing that nearly 75% of all US teens with Net access are using instant-messaging, and many parents are finding that the very best way to get their attention at home is to IM them! Psychologists are weighing in, saying that the phenomenon "can be remarkably positive. In many cases, they say, the messages are helping to break down the interpersonal barriers that often prevent open communication."
- One family's rule: No more pirated music
Being that his career depends on copyright protection and that piracy's illegal, dad/New York Times reporter John Schwartz steered clear of pirated music waters. "But Sam Austin Schwartz, age 13 and the musical omnivore of the family, did not," John writes. "And that's how the story of our search for legitimate online music began." Sam downloaded Kazaa when John was on an extended reporting trip last year. When that development brought many, many pop-up ads (and many of those pornographic) and slowed the PC significantly, Mom and Dad were not told. But 7-year-old bro' Joe complained, "There are naked people on the computer!" You'll probably enjoy the rest of the story (and its lessons) as much as we did. One important though not-altogether-surprising revelation: surfing the legal music services feeds the appetite, depletes the family budget.
- File-sharing is down: Survey
Other file-sharers seem to be getting a conscience (or frustration with pop-ups, porn, and viruses). The atest survey from the Pew Internet & American Life project found that "the percentage of online Americans downloading music files on the Internet has dropped by half ... since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began filing suits in September against those suspected of copyright infringement." Pew's nationwide phone survey of 1,358 Internet users from November 18 to December 14 found that the percentage had fallen to 14% (about 18 million users) from 29% (about 35 million) at the time of Pew's last check in April and March 2003.
The groups that reported the steepest drop in percentage of file-sharers were women (58% fewer), those with some college education (61% fewer), and parents with children living at home (58% fewer). Meanwhile, comScore Media Metrix has noted an increase in traffic at the paid online music services over the same period (Sony this week unveiled its new music store, CNET reported). Here's survey coverage by Reuters and the New York Times. And here's the latest from the Associated Press on RIAA lawsuits and file-sharer settlements.
- Teaching kids media literacy
We're hearing this more and more - the need to help children develop this type of literacy. But what do the experts mean by it? Basically, "preparing [our] kids for a media-saturated world," as a thoughtful commentator in MIT's Technology Review puts it, helping them develop critical thinking, ethical reasoning, a healthy skepticism - their own best filter, the one that lies between their ears. This article calls for an integrated media literacy curriculum from kindergarten through college (supported at home), but without treating kids as victims. In this age of "participatory media" that allows children to be publishers themselves, "the new media literacy education needs to be about empowerment and responsibility," MIT Prof. Henry Jenkins writes. Empowering them, for example, to "distinguish reliable from unreliable information"; "recognize the commercial or political motives of sites"; and "recognize what perspectives are not being represented within the range of available data." This is excellent advice, we feel. [For more on this, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best research (and online-safety) tool," 5/30/03.]
- Move over, browser
Web surfing is so 20th-century. A recent study found that most people now access the Net using instant-messaging software and media players, not browsers like Explorer or Netscape. "Seventy-six percent of active Internet users access the Net using a non-browser application," ZDNet UK reports. For the Top 5 applications, ZDNet cites Nielsen/NetRatings figures for December: Windows Media Player was No. 1 (used by 34% of Net users); AOL Instant Messenger (20.27%); RealNetworks' players (19.76%); MSN Messenger (19.31%); and Yahoo Messenger (12.26%).
- Spam still flows
From the This Does Not Surprise Us Department perhaps: Despite the US's new law, spam actually reached new heights last week, having accounted for nearly 85% of the some 1 billion emails that one California email-protection company handles each week, according to the Washington Post. The biggest spam-filtering company, Brightmail, though, said its spam-to-email figure held steady at about 60%. And the New York Times reports that "the law has gotten the attention of some hard- core spammers, even if it has not cut back their mailing yet. Attendance is down at this year's private meeting of high-volume bulk emailers being held in Las Vegas alongside the Internext trade show [for online pornographers]."
So how about that law?! Well, a lot of spammers have moved their operations overseas, the Post reports. AOL told the Post it's seen a roughly 10% shift to overseas of the origins of email it handles. One point families might want to note: "The most notorious spam still has no unsubscribe links [required by the law]. If the unsolicited email does, it is likely to be used by spammers to confirm that they have hit a valid email address." So don't click on any unsubscribe button until the law has more impact, and that could be a while. ISPs like AOL are saying it's too early to pass judgment on the law. It'll probably take some damaging lawsuits against spammers before the law has real teeth.
Meanwhile, the US law has support from abroad. At last month's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting, Australia proposed that all national communications regulators sign a memorandum of understanding to boost international anti-spam efforts, Australian IT reports.
- More trouble for Grand Theft Auto
A US federal court will decide whether the latest version of the video game Grand Theft Auto - Vice City - will be removed from store shelves. According to the Associated Press, Haitian civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the game's makers, Rockstar Gamers, as well as its parent, Take-Two Interactive Software, Sony Computer Entertainment, Microsoft and retailers Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy, because the game instructs players to "kill the Haitians" and awards points for each kill. New York-based Rockstar "has agreed to remove the offensive line from future versions of the award-winning video that has sold 11 million copies.... The Haitian organizations, led by the Haitian-American Coalition of Palm Beach County, have also asked for more than $15,000 in damages."
- VoIP's hot
Lots of tech media people are saying Internet telephony (or VoIP, for voice-over Internet protocol) is the technology to watch in 2004. Time Warner, Qwest, and AT&T have all announced plans to start selling VoIP service, joining SBC, Verizon, and other phone companies, ZDNet reports. The piece adds that, for them, Internet phone is just as much a regulatory loophole as it is a good deal for the customer. Indeed, regulation is the big VoIP story at the moment, the New York Times indicates. Its future, a commentator in CNET says, will turn on whether regulators view it as an information service or a telecommunications one. "If VoIP falls under telecommunications, then it is subject to public- utility economic regulation. If it is an information service, then it is not."
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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